This weekend, a lot of gamers are going to sit around and watch cyberathletes play video games in the FIFA 17 world championships, just a week after the Madden NFL 17 finals.
In the physical world, pro football and soccer events are among the biggest spectator sports in the world. But Electronic Arts is making progress in getting fans to watch digital versions of those sports in the form of video game esports tournaments.
It may sound like the strangest thing in the world that fans would spectate gamers playing a multiplayer match of a Madden NFL Football video game or FIFA 17. But EA is drawing bigger and bigger crowds as it levels up “competitive gaming,” as it prefers to call the esports phenomenon.
Todd Sitrin, Electronic Arts senior vice president and Competitive Gaming Division general manager believes that each level of competitive gaming is gaining momentum, from the professional esports players competing for real money at the top to the casual players competing among friends at the bottom of the pyramid.
EA is giving out its largest prize pools ever, and it’s a sign that pro players could make a full career out of playing esports. The FIFA Ultimate Team Championship series takes place May 20-21 in Berlin. I talked with Sitrin about the phenomenon of competitive gaming.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Image Credit: EA
GamesBeat: [Former EA chief competition officer] Peter Moore talked about a pyramid in the way EA views competition. I assume you’re moving forward on that same general strategy?
Todd Sitrin: Very much so. When we started out the CGD, we had a mission to make stars out of all of our players. The key word for us there is “all.” Whether you play in our games competitively – the base of the pyramid – or whether you start to move up toward the top, where you’re competing in live events, and then obviously the pinnacle is happening this week for Madden, and next week for FIFA—we think that no matter where you are in that pyramid, we should celebrate our players. That’s what we set out to do from the first day.
GamesBeat: What’s some of the execution on that strategy?
Sitrin: It starts at the base of the pyramid, which is about game competitions. In FIFA 17 we introduced a new competitive mode, FIFA Ultimate Team Champions. Players come in and take part in a competition that happens every week with great prizes and advancement up a leaderboard. That mode became extremely popular. Millions of people have played it this year as their first step into competitions.
From there, it creates a leaderboard of players. The people at the very top then were able to advance to live competitions. This last year in Madden, we did many different competitions in different sizes. Some were lower on the pyramid, what we call the challenger events. These were community-based competitions. We had around 10 throughout the year for Madden, where small community groups would come together and have competitions we sanctioned.
Then you go up to what we call the premier level, a bit higher up the pyramid. With FIFA we did premier competitions all around the world – maybe 15 of them. These were more established competitions, more country-based or region-based. We held a competition, for instance, in Sweden during Dreamhack. We had one in France with Vivendi and the Ligue 1 football league.
At the very top was what we call the EA Majors. This year, for Madden, we held three Majors ahead of the championship we’re doing this weekend. On the FIFA side we held a total of seven Majors leading into the final, which is going to be in Berlin. So really, whether it was at the base level – introducing new competitions in the game – or community-based, more local competitions, or premier country-wide competitions, or EA Majors at the global level, we’ve significantly increased the competition going on in all parts of the pyramid over the last year.
GamesBeat: Do you have any numbers associated with that, like engagement or the number of players involved?
Sitrin: We’re up to millions of people participating at the base level across our games. Probably in the tens of millions. I don’t know exact numbers on how many people made it to live events, but we certainly have hundreds, several hundreds coming into our live events around the world. Our finals have a much smaller number of players getting invited, but to become the best FIFA or Madden player in the world, you’re competing against millions of players.
Image Credit: EA
GamesBeat: How is the audience side developing, as far as spectators or broadcasting?
Sitrin: We’re focusing on accessibility. Our games are clearly more accessible to viewers than any other competitive games out there. Most of the competitive games that have helped develop this marketplace have been very hardcore, very deep strategy games, that are hard for viewers to understand. One benefit we’ve had with Madden and FIFA is that people already understand the rules of the game, because they’re fans of the sport. People are familiar with the teams and players. Accessibility has been a big part of the strategy for us.
That also relates to how we approach distribution. We try to make it as wide as we can. No matter where you are, what platform you’re on, or where you like to normally watch content,…
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